We got our (Emsa/Avis) rental car at the hotel and started around 9.00 am for the trip to Torres del Paine National Park. We passed the small airport of Puerto Natales and came on a gravel road; our ‘companion’ for the rest of the day.
(Since 2007 there is a 'new' road to the western entrance of the park, which takes about 75 minutes and makes it possible to drive a loop. See for nore info: http://www.torres-del-paine.org/distances.html)
The scenery in Chilean Patagonia is quite different from the Argentinean side: much more trees and bushes, meadows, some hosterias along the road. Not so empty and sometimes oncoming traffic with more or less crazy drivers on these dirt roads.
Cerro Castillo is about halfway between Puerto Natales and the National Park. The settlement is located in the middle of vast and empty plains, where the terrible Patagonian wind was blowing all the time. There is a shop/café and we had a cup of coffee. Don’t expect ‘French cuisine’ and good coffees in the middle of nowhere.
After Cerro Castillo the landscape is getting more and more impressive with the mountains of Torres coming closer and closer and the steppe starting next to the road. Lago Sarmiento was the first lake with its turquois coloured water and the Torres del Paine in the background. Really fantastic scenery.
After about 115 km’s we reached the entry gate at Lago Sarmiento and had to pay the entrance fee of 10.000 pesos per person.
After our visit to the park we returned at 7.30 pm in Puerto Natales and had driven 340 km's through really unbelievable scenery !! We still regret not having stayed one or two days IN the park.
We were not aware of it, but when we left Puerto Natales on the ‘Alberto de Agostini’ we already could see this glacier. Due to the clear air it seemed if the glacier and the surrounding mountains were rather close, but it took about 3 hours sailing before we reached the bay in front of the Balmaceda Glacier.
Ahead of us was the Balmaceda Mountain range with the top of Balmaceda at 2.035 metres and the glacier tumbling down the slope almost into the sea. This glacier is also on retreat (as all glaciers) and it is interesting (or better alarming) to know that 15 years ago the foot of the glacier was still at sea level.
The boat came rather close to the mainland and we could see the crevasses, peaks and ‘coloured’ ice. And we were lucky with the weather, because even the top of the mountain and the whole glacier were (temporary) visible. The only way to see this glacier is by boat on the trip with ‘Turismo 21 de Mayo’.
This glacier is also tumbling down the Balmaceda Mountain, but on the north slope. It ends in a glacier lake and ice breaking off the main ice wall causes several icebergs floating in the lake. Depending on the wind this icebergs do reach a shore and we could get very close to them.
(It is possible to make a (short) boat trip on the glacier lake in a zodiac around the icebergs and close to the glacier.)
We couldn’t come as close as we expected, because the viewing point is on a very safe distance from the main ice wall. This viewing point is reachable through a walkway from the pier at Puerto Toro.
The only way to see this glacier is by boat on the trip with ‘Turismo 21 de Mayo’.
Perhaps the most impressive and at least most amazing and remarkable part of our trip to the glaciers in Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins was our walk from the pier at Puerto Toro (after 3 ½ hours sailing) to the viewing point for the Serrano Glacier trough a fantastic part of native forest.
Amazing, because it is almost unbelievable that these kinds of flowers and bushes are able to survive in environs with snow and ice all around. Remarkable, because we were walking on a narrow and winding walkway with ice and icebergs on one side and a green dense native forest on the other side.
We saw some familiar flowers (like the fuchsia) and a lot of beautiful and completely unknown species.
This part of the National Park can only be reached by the boat trip of Turismo 21 de Mayo.
The "w" trek is considered a nice option for those who haven´t got much time available and want to see the most important parts of the park. I´m not a trekking expert =P and I could not complete the whole trek because of the weather, but I will write down the data I´ve collected about this circuit.
It usually takes from 4 to 5 days, depending on weather and speed, covering a journey to Torres and their base, contouring the mountain Chico Sur and the cuernos, then walking along the Valley of Francés and coming back to reach the Grey Glacier (the Grey Glacier, this valley and Torres are known as the most beautiful parts of the park). This walk then has the form of a W... Some people start from the Torres side, walking since laguna Amarga (or you can pay for a microvan to get to refugio las Torres and then start from there), and some others start on the Grey side, from Pudeto´s bus stop and taking a boat to Pehoe Camping.
There´s a nice description of this circuit here:
Just one detail: the cuernos refuge, that was in construction when that text was made, is already in function, and there is a camping as well.
This is sort of a long tip since we did 3 things in 1 day.
There are 2 main tour operators that offer this full day option - Turismo 21 de Mayo and Punta Alta. I think both companies pretty much cover the same route: a 3 hour catamaran ride on the Seno Ultima Esperanza (passing by cormorant colonies and Glacier Balmaceda), a 1 - 1.5 hour stop at Glacier Serrano, a 2 hour ride on a zodiac down Rio Serrano, a lunch stop at an estancia, and a bus ride through parts of Torres del Paine to Puerto Natales.
The Turismo 21 de Mayo tour seem to include a scenic tour on a minibus through the park for 130,000 CLP. Since the site was in Spanish, I don't actually know what parts of Torres del Paine they visited and how long each stop would be.
We read that Punta Alta has newer and faster boats, so we ended up booking with them (through Rodrigo, the B&B owner). The difference between our tour and Turismo 21 de Mayo is that it ends at Pueblito Serrano, where we had a sheep BBQ lunch (98,000 CLP). From there, you can either get a minibus ride back to Puerto Natales without going in the park (for 12,000 CLP, I believe) or get a private transfer to Puerto Natales but with various stops through the park (40,000 CLP + 15,000 CLP park fees). It was rather pricey, but since it was essentially a private tour that took close to 4 hours, it was worth it. Our driver Jorge made many impromptu stops so we could look at the wildlife in the park.
Seno Ultima Esperanza / Catamaran
The 3 hour ride started at the pier in Puerto Natales at 8am. The boat has 2 decks and we can go to the upper deck to take pictures throughout the trip. It has wide windows, so if you don't want to brave the elements, you could stay inside the boat and still see pretty much everything. The day started out pretty smooth, but an hour or so into the trip, the wind became quite strong and our boat was rocking badly when the crew were handing out the breakfast / snack bags. Gravol is recommended. Along the way, you can see cormorant colonies, mini waterfalls, and Glaciar Balmaceda. The boat part of the tour stops at Puerto Toro for our visit to the Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgins (specifically Glaciar Serrano).
It takes roughly 1 hour to tour this glacier (which includes some time for photos). You can stay on the trail and get pretty close to the glacier or you can take the rowboat for an additional 8,000 CLP to get right up to the glacier. The glacier is not very big comparing to others but still pretty nice if you have never been that close to glaciers before. The area was quite windy and wet though, so you should bring a waterproof jacket and maybe something to protect your camera. After the tour, the people on the full day glacier tour got back on the catamaran to return to Puerto Natales. I think that tour cost 65,000 CLP. We stayed behind for the zodiac portion of the tour. It was about 1:00pm or so when we met our river guides.
There were only 4 of us who took the zodiac option. After the somewhat turbulent catamaran trip, we were quite worried about getting seasick (river-sick?) and our cameras wet. We didn't really have to worry though - we were each given an orange flotation suit to wear, which is waterproof and super warm. Our belongings (purses, backpacks etc) were gathered and thrown inside a black waterproof bag that came with us on the zodiac. There are pockets in the flotation suits, so you can put your compact camera and other personal items in there. We were told that the water was quite cold and we'd probably still die if we fell in and didn't get rescued in time :)
The zodiac ride turned out to be much calmer than the catamaran. The ride itself was quite spectacular and you get to see things that are not accessible by car, such as the Tyndall glacier. We passed through the Bernardo O'Higgins park and entered Torres del Paine (I think), and made a short stop to get a panoramic view of the river. We then switched zodiacs to get to Pueblito Serrano for our lunch. The guides were very accomodating and hospitable. I think our sheep BBQ lunch was one of the best meals we had on our trip and we all had a good chat about life and such while sampling the fine Chilean wine and pisco. (6 people decided to back out of the zodiac tour, so we each had double portion of lunch and drinks.) I think we finished our lunch at about 4:00pm and our transfers were waiting for us.
Torres del Paine
While I think it would be much better to hike in the park, our 4 hour tour did give us enough to appreciate the beauty of the place. Our first stop was the Grey Glacier beach, where you can see glacier ice formations in the lake with the Cuernos as the backdrop. The beach was a lot larger than we thought and the winds were quite strong, so it took us much longer to cover the distance. Jorge, our Spanish speaking driver, came with us to make sure we weren't blown off the bridge :)
We then stopped to look at the turquoise waters and also at Lake Pehoe. Jorge noticed that I was collecting rocks (for my friend) and made a couple of stops to show us some fossils. I was fascinated by the windswept landscape, especially the trees that grow only towards one side.
Originally, we were not going to stop at Salto Grande because of the wind (there is a spot where you can see it from afar), but Jorge decided that it was safe enough to go. We were pretty Ok and got up to the falls and snapped a few pictures. In the space of that minute though, this strong wind appeared out of nowhere and we were all clinging to the post and hoped that we won't get blown down river. (Literally.) I think we were hanging on to our dear lifes for maybe a couple of minutes before the wind died down enough that we could walk crab-like to safety. Apparently there were some accident with a school group the week before our visit and a child may have been hurt by the strong wind. (I couldn't get the details since the guide was half speaking in Spanish.)
We also stopped at Lago Sarmiento and the Mirador for Las Torres. Due to the clouds, we only saw about 2/3 of Las Torres, so it was a bit disappointing. We did see a lot of wildlife, like guanacos, condors, flamingoes, and an ostrich on the way out of the park. We got back to Puerto Natales at around 9:45pm and the sun was about to set.
I would recommend this tour if you are only in Puerto Natales for one day and want to see everything you could. It made pretty good use of time, especially since if you were on the glacier tour, you sort of wasted 3 hours coming back the same way. The major drawback was that it took close to 14 hours. The cost was also quite high comparing to some of the other tours we did in Chile.
From Lago Pehoe we continued our trip to the Visitor Centre of the park with some interesting exhibits, some useful maps and other information.
After crossing the River Grey the gravel road became VERY bad and our speed was often not more than 20 km !! But we reached, really shaken up, the parking place opposite the Guarderia Lago Grey. We walked to Lago Grey with the Grey Glacier more or less in the clouds. But on our side of the lake were huge icebergs floating in the water.
Everywhere in Patagonia the wind is blowing, but on this spot we had a real gale and it was almost impossible to walk back to our car. We were happy wearing an extra sweater today. In Hosteria Lago Grey we had our (late) lunch with a splendid view of the glaciers.
(See for more options around Lago Grey: http://www.lagogrey.cl/excursions.php)
..... Full day Fiordo Ultima Esparanza .....
That is the announcement on the website of ‘Turismo 21 de Mayo’, the company which operates this boat trip during summer. And it is the truth, because we (and you) had to sail for 7 long hours on a rather small boat, leaving from Puerto Natales at 8.00 am and returning around 5.45 pm.
What we saw during this trip:
- the first hours we were sailing along Puerto Bories and some remote estancia’s on the shores;
- Barrosa Cliff with a breeding colony of Cormorants;
- a couple of sea lions, almost invisible from the boat;
- Condor Cliff, for us without condors;
- Glaciers Balmaceda and Serrano, interesting but by far not as impressive as the glaciers we saw in Argentina;
- weather depending a view of the Torres Mountains.
All together we were not very satisfied with this trip, also regarding the price.
Be aware it can be VERY cold on deck and I highly recommend wearing heavy clothes and a WINDPROOF jacket.
There is a cafeteria service on board and we got tea/coffee and on our way back a glass of pisco with glacier ice for free. During the way back we made a stop at the Estancia Perales, where one can have a lunch or walk around.
The company - Turismo 21 de Mayo - has two boats: Cutter ’21 de Mayo’ and a motor yacht ‘Alberto de Agostini’.
Price (Oct. 2010): 65.000 pesos (exclusive lunch).
I would recommend booking one day in advance (at the office of the company) if the weather forecast is good.
The stunning Torres del Paine national park is what attracts almost every visitor to Natales, nearest town to the park. The park is about 110km north and a huge tourism industry has developed here in Natales, catering to the large numbers of visitors.
The beautiful bay on which Natales sits is well worth seeing. It's about six streets west of the main square, and from here there are good views of the sound and the distant mountains. It can get very cold and windy down here so come prepared.